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Friday, December 09, 2005

The Missioner

This story is from a collection of Belloc's essays, "On Everything." I don't believe you will find it anywhere else on the internet. I came across it one day by chance in Christendom's library, and I thought you all would enjoy it at this time of the year: it is steeped in the strange feeling of Advent, all violet shadow and cedar and candlelight and the sound of Veni, veni Immanuel.

The Missioner
by Hilaire Belloc

   In one of those great halls which the winter darkens and which are proper to the North, there sat a group of men, kindly and full of the winter night and of their food and drink, upon which for many hours they had regaled together, and not only full of song, but satiated with it, so long and so loudly had they sung. They all claimed descent form the Gods, but in varying degrees, and their Chief was descended from the father of the Gods, by no doubtful lineage, for it was his grandfer's mother to whom a witch in the woods had told the story of her birth.
    In the midst of them as they so sat, a large fire smouldered, but having been long lit, sent up so strong a shaft of rising air as drew all smoke with it, towering to a sort of open cage upon the high roof tree of that hall whence it could escape to heaven.
    I say they were tired of song and filled with many good things, but chiefly with companionship. They had landed but recently from the sea; the noise of the sea was in their ears as they so sat round the fire, still talking low, and a Priest who was among them refused to interpret the sound; but he said in a manner that some mocked doubtfully, others heard with awe, that the sea never sounded save upon nights when the Gods were abroad. He was the Priest of a lesser God, but he was known throughout the fleet of those pirate fishermen for his great skill in the interpretation of dreams, and he could tell by the surface of the water in the nightless midsummer where the shoals were to be found.
   He said that on that night the Gods were abroad, and, indeed, the quality of the wind as it came down the gulf of the fjord provoked such a fancy, for it rose and fell as though by a volition, and sometimes one would have said that it was a quiet night, and, again, a moment after, one heard a noise like a voice round the corners of the great beams, and the wind pitied or appealed or called. Then a man who was a serf, but very skilled in woodwork, lying among the serfs in the outer ring beyond the fire in the straw, called up and said: "Lords, he is right; the Gods have come down from the Dovrefield; they are abroad. Let us bless our doors."
   It was when he had so spoken that upon the main gate of that Hall (a large double engine of foot-thick pine swung upon hinges wrought many generations ago by the sons of the Gods) came a little knocking. It was a little tapping like the tapping of a bird. It rang musically of metal and of hollow metal; it moved them curiously, and a very young man who was of the blood said to his father: "Perhaps a God would warn us."
   The keeper of the door was a huge and kindly man, foolish but good for lifting, with whom by daylight children played, and who upon such evenings lay silent and contented enough to hear his wittier fellows. This serf rose from the straw and went to unbar. But the Chief put his hand forward, and bade him stay that they might still hear that little tapping. Then he lowered his hand and the gate was swung open.
   Cold came with it for a moment, and the night air; light, and as though blown before that draught, drifted into the hall a tall man, very young, who bowed to them with a gesture they did not know, and first asked in a tongue they could not tell, whether any man might interpret for him.
   Then one old man who was their pilot and who had often run down into the vineyard lands, sometimes for barter, sometimes for war, always for a wage, said two or three words in that new tongue, hesitatingly. His face was wrinkled and hard; he had very bright but very pale grey eyes that were full of humility. He said three words of greeting which he had painfully learned twenty years before, from a priest, upon the rocks of Brittany, who had also given him smooth stones wherewith to pray; and with these smooth stones the old Pilot continually prayed sometimes to the greater and sometimes to the lesser Gods. His wife had died during the first war between Hrolf and the Twin Brothers; he had come home to find her dead and sanctified, and, being Northern, he had since been also a silent man. This Pilot, I say, quoted the words of greeting in the strange tongue. Then the tall young stranger man advanced into the circle of the firelight and made a sign upon his head and his breast and his shoulders, which was like the sign of the Hammer of Thor, and yet which was not the sign of the Hammer of Thor. When he had done this, the Pilot attempted that same sign, but he failed at it, for it was many years since he had been taught it upon the Breton coast. He knew it to be magical and beneficent, and he was ashamed to fail.
   The Chief of those who were descended form the Gods and were seated round the fire, turned to the Priest and said: "Is this a guest, a stranger sent, or is he a man come as an enemy who should be led out again into the night? Have you any divination?"
   "I have no divination," said the priest. "I cannot tell one thing or the other, nor each from the other in the case of this young man. But perhaps he is one of the Gods seeking shelter among men, or perhaps he is a fancy thing, warlock, but not doing evil. Or perhaps he is from the demons; or perhaps he is a man like ourselves, and seeking shelter during some long wandering."
   When the Chief heard this he asked the Pilot, not as a man possessing divine knowledge, but as one who had travelled and knew the sea, whether he knew this Stranger and whence he came. To which the Pilot answered:
   "Captain, I do not know this young man nor whence he comes, nor any of his tribe, nor have I seen any like him save once three slaves who stood in a market-place of the Romans in a town that was subject to a great lord who was a Frank and not a Breton, and who was hated by the people of his town so that later they slew him. Then these three slaves were loosened, and they came to the house of the Priest of the Gods of that country, and they told me the name of the people whence they sprang. But I have forgotten it. Only I know that it is among the vineyard lands. There the day and the night are equally divided all the year long, and if the snow falls it falls gently and for a very little while, and there are all manner of birds, and those people are very rich, and they have great houses of stone. Now I believe this Stranger to be a man like ourselves, born of a woman, and coming northward upon some purpose which we do not know. It may be for merchandise, or it may be for the love of singing and of telling stories to men."
   When he had said this they all looked at the Stranger and they saw that he had with him a little instrument that was not known to them, for it was a flute of metal. It was of silver, as they could see, long drawn and very delicately made, and with this he had summoned at the gate.
   The Chief then brought out with his own hands a carven chair, on which he seated the Stranger, and he put into his right hand a gold cup taken from the Romans in a city of the Franks, upon which was faintly carved a cross, and round the rim of which were four precious stones, an emerald, a ruby, an amethyst, and a diamond; and going to a skin which he had taken in a Gascon raid, he poured out wine into that chalice and went down upon one knee as is proper to strangers when they are to be entertained, and put a cloth over his arms and bade him drink. But when the young man saw the cross faintly carved upon the cup and the four precious stones at the corners of it, he shuddered a little and put it aside as though it were a sacred thing, at which they all marvelled. Yet he longed for the wine. And they, understanding that in some way this ornament was sacred to his Gods, gently took it from him and through courtesy put it aside upon a separate place which was reserved for honourable vessels, and poured him other wine into a wooden stoop; and this he drank, holding it out now to one and now to another, but last and chiefly to their Captain; and as he drank it he drank it with signs of amity.
   Then by way of payment for so much kindness he took his silver flute and blew upon it shrill notes, all very sweet, and the sweeter for their choice and distance one from another, until they listened, listening every man with those beside him like one man, for they had never heard such a sound; and as he played one man saw one thing in his mind and one another thing; for one man saw the long and easy summer seas that roll after a prosperous boat filled with spoil, whether of fishes or of booty, when the square sail is taken aft by a warm wind in the summer season, and the high mountains of home first show beyond the line of the sea. And another man saw a little valley, narrow, with deep pasture, wherein he had been bred and had learned to plow the land with horses before he had come to the handling of a tiller or the bursting of water upon the bows. And another saw no distinct and certain thing, but vague and pleasurable hopes fulfilled, and the advent of great peace. And another saw those heights of the hills to which he ever desired to return.
   But the old Pilot, straining with wonder in his eyes as the music rose, thought confusedly of all that he had seen and known; of the twirling tides upon the Breton coast and of the great stone towns, of the bright vestments of the ordered armies in the market-places and of the vineyard land.
   When the Stranger had ceased so to play upon his instrument they applauded, as their custom was, by cries, some striking the armour upon the ground so that it rang, and by gesture and voice they begged him play again.
   The second time he played all those men heard one thing: which was a dance of young men and women together in some country where there was little fear. The tune went softly, and was softly repeated, full of the lilt of feet, and when it was ended they knew that the dance was done.
   This time they were so pleased that they waited a little before they would applaud, but the old Pilot, remembering more strongly than ever the vineyard land, moved his right hand back and forward with delight as in some way he would play music with it, and thus by a communication of heart to heart stirred in that Stranger a new song; and taking up his flute for the third time he blew upon it a different strain, at which some were confused, others hungry in their hearts, though they could not have told you why, but the old Pilot saw great and gracious figures moving over a land subject to blessedness; he saw that in the faces of these figures (which were those of the Immortals) stood present at once a complete satisfaction and a joyous energy and a solution of every ill. "These," he said to himself in the last passion of the music, "these are true Gods." But suddenly the music ceased, and with it the vision also.
   For the great pleasure which the Flute Player had given them they desired to keep him in their company, and so they did for three full years. That is, the winter long, the seed time, and the time of harvest; and the next harvest also, and another harvest more, during which time he played them many tunes, and learnt their tongue.
   Now, his Gods were his own, but he pined for the lack of their worship and for Priests of his own sort, and when he would explain these in his own manner some believed him, but some did not believe him. And to those who believed him he brought a man from the South, from beyond the Dovrefield, who baptised them with water: as for those who would not have this they looked on, and kept to their own decree: but there was as yet no division among them. A little while after the third harvest, hearing that the fleet, which was of twelve boats, would make for Roman land, he begged to go with it, for he was sick for his own, but first he made them take an oath that they would molest none, nor even barter with any, until they had landed him in his own land. The Chief took this oath for them, and though his oath was worth the oath of twelve men, twelve other men swore with him. In this way the oath was done. So they took the Flute Player for three days over the sea before the wind called Eager, which is the north-east wind, and blows at the beginning of the open season; they took him at the beginning of the fourth year since his coming among them, and they landed him in a little boat in a seaport of the Franks, on Roman land...
   The Faith went over the world as very light seed goes upon the wind, and no one knows the drift on which it blew; it came to one place and to another, and to each in a different way. It came, not to many men, but always to one heart, till all men had hold of it.

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